Toggle Menu

The Republicans’ Star Impeachment Scholar Is a Shameless Hack

Jonathan Turley’s testimony was so inconsistent, it contradicted his own previous statements on impeachment.

By Elie MystalTwitter

December 5, 2019

Jonathan Turley of George Washington University testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on December 4.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

The House Judiciary Committee held something like a national teach-in on impeachment yesterday. Democrats still believe they can counter the Republican strategy of lying to their base with the somber recitation of facts. So they brought in four legal scholars to explain the constitutional process of impeachment and talk about whether President Donald Trump committed impeachable offenses.

Three of the professors agreed that Trump should be impeached: Noah Feldman of Harvard Law School, Pam Karlan of Stanford Law School, and Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina School of Law.

The fourth professor, requested by Republicans on the committee, was Jonathan Turley from George Washington University Law School. Republicans know that all they have to do to outflank the Democrats is serve up talking points Sean Hannity can use on his show. They tapped Turley to do the easy work of poisoning the well with more misinformation.

Turley did not disappoint. He told Republicans what they wanted to hear right from his opening statement: “I’m concerned about lowering impeachment standard to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger. I believe this impeachment not only fails to satisfy the standard of past impeachments, but would create a dangerous precedent for future impeachments…. This would be the first impeachment in history where there would be considerable debate, and in my view, not compelling evidence, of the commission of a crime.”

Current Issue

View our current issue

Subscribe today and Save up to $129.

Turley beclowned himself with his remarks, because this is not the first time Jonathan Turley has testified about impeachment. In 1998, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment hearing, Turley said, “No matter how you feel about President Clinton, no matter how you feel about the independent counsel, by his own conduct, he has deprived himself of the perceived legitimacy to govern. You need both political and legal legitimacy to govern this nation, because the President must be able to demand an absolute sacrifice from the public at a moment’s notice.”

It’s impossible to explain the shameless hypocrisy of Turley’s conflicting statements without concluding that his testimony, in both hearings, was offered in bad faith. Can Turley really expect us to believe that he would support impeachment if Trump lied about what he got on Volodymyr Zelensky’s blue dress, but would also support Bill Clinton’s right to extort a foreign power to influence an American election? Turley can’t square his Trump testimony with his Clinton testimony; all he can hope for is that people are too polite to call him a hypocrite to his face.

Jonathan Turley is punking us. The only dangerous lowering of standards we saw at the hearing was the smuggling of Jonathan Turley onto a panel of experts, the rest of whom were able to testify with academic integrity.

Turley is a paid legal analyst for CBS News. He writes a column for The Hill. And he’s still a tenured professor at George Washington Law. That he was summoned to give such plainly conflicting testimony, and that he was willing to give it even as it directly contradicted his thoughts and writings about prior impeachments, perfectly exemplifies how legal elites and legacy media have failed to meet the challenge of the Donald Trump presidency.

It’s the same failure we saw during the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, where elite legal scholars lined up to defend the “character” of a man who lied repeatedly during prior congressional testimony, finally piping down—and only, at that—once the attempted rape allegation came out. It’s the same failure we see every night on television when a news organization brings on a legal pundit to surface misinformation and faulty logic in the name of presenting both sides. We see it every time a career attorney at the Department of Justice stands up in open court and argues that kidnapped children being held in cages by Trump’s government don’t need toothbrushes.

There is simply no professional or societal downside for people like Turley in making these bad, intellectually dishonest arguments. Turley himself was a random environmental law wonk before he made himself famous during the Clinton impeachment years. He made the media rounds then, calling himself a “Democrat” who was willing to speak truth to power about the “serious” nature of Clinton’s misbehavior. Back then, Turley was lauded by people like Rush Limbaugh for demanding that Clinton’s own Secret Service agents be subpoenaed to testify about what they know.

You’ll note that Turley made no such demands yesterday of former national security adviser John Bolton or Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Instead of highlighting the fact that Trump is obstructing justice by refusing to allow these people to testify, Turley blamed the Democrats for moving too fast.

The wheel never comes back around on these people. Alan Dershowitz might get the stink-eye on Marthas Vineyard, but he’s still a media fixture available to spout whatever pro-monarchy theory of government best serves President Trump. Rod Rosenstein, last seen legitimizing William Barr’s mischaracterization of the Mueller report, will cash in with a book deal soon enough. The students who defended Brett Kavanaugh now get to clerk for Brett Kavanaugh, and eventually they’ll make a lot of money working at law firms that fund Brett Kavanaugh events. It is professionally advantageous for these elites to debase themselves in service of Donald Trump, because they know that they will still be treated as “elites” in whatever country we have left once Trump is done with it.

The scholarly grift is so successful because very few people outside of legal academia feel like they have the educational chops to challenge these people, and very few people inside the academy see it as their job to take the grifters down. During the confirmation battle for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the first woman of color ever nominated to the Supreme Court—Turley argued that his thorough “review” of 30 Sotomayor opinions revealed that she lacked the “intellectual depth” of a good Supreme Court nominee. You can imagine how often media hosts, many of whom haven’t even read one Supreme Court opinion, felt empowered to call Turley out on his racist claptrap. (And it was racist claptrap. Read Sotomayor’s dissent in the travel ban case to get a taste of the woman who has quickly become the fiercest writer on the court since Thurgood Marshall.)

Turley wasn’t even the lead dog in the campaign to belittle Sotomayor. The tip of that spear was George Washington Law professor Jeffrey Rosen. In a piece for The New Republic titled “The Case Against Sotomayor,” Rosen found some unnamed law clerk to say that Sotomayor was “not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench.” Rosen now runs the legitimate sounding National Constitution Center. They just gave retired Republican justice Anthony Kennedy, who stepped down so Trump could name Brett Kavanaugh as his replacement, an award.

These legal elites are ensconced in tenure and available for comment. They don’t wear MAGA hats or share white supremacist memes on Twitter. They understand that the appearance of “objective analysis” is the key to smuggling in all of their Republican talking points under the guise of balance. During his Clinton testimony, Turley said he voted for Clinton. During his Trump testimony, Turley said that he didn’t vote for Trump. He said that his votes “didn’t matter,” but he was sure to put that useless information on the record both times. Why? Well, it’s an old trick, one Frodo Baggins would see through: “A servant of the enemy would look fairer and feel fouler.”

Turley eventually said that President Trump’s conduct was “clearly wrong” and with “more evidence” might rise to the level of an impeachable offense. He drew a contrast between how much “evidence” the committee had against Clinton, via the Starr report, versus the relative “rush” to impeach Trump with the work done by Adam Schiff and the House Intelligence Committee.

Here again, Turley is counting on no one’s having the institutional memory to notice his intellectual dishonesty. Turley knows full well that the reason the Starr report took “longer” was that Starr was appointed as an independent counsel by a three-judge panel to replace an independent counsel appointed by the attorney general. Turley knows that the current attorney general, his buddy Bill Barr, would never appoint a special counsel to investigate Trump (again). He also knows that Ken Starr so far exceeded his mandate—Starr was appointed to investigate the Whitewater scandal and ended up investigating a sexual affair—that they actually rewrote the independent counsel rules to make sure Starr could never happen again. To recap: Turley knows his comparison between the Starr report and the Schiff report is entirely inapposite and unfair. But he says it anyway because he thinks most people won’t know what he knows.

All the public can do to deal with these people is to recognize the snow job as it’s happening. Don’t be intimidated by the credentials or the presentation. Don’t be lulled into thinking these right-wing water carriers are reasonable simply because they sound reasonable while grifting. The truth is obvious. Donald Trump solicited a bribe. He wanted a foreign government to interfere with our election. Bribery is listed, in plain English, in our Constitution as an impeachable offense. The country would be better off if Republicans admitted they just don’t care as opposed to spending so much time and energy trying to gaslight the nation.

You don’t need a law degree to know that everything Jonathan Turley said yesterday was drenched in his own hypocrisy. His testimony was an attempt to distract and dissemble, offered at the behest of the Republican Party, which tapped him likely because it couldn’t find a legal scholar with less partisan baggage to make the same bad-faith arguments. Ken Starr or Jeanine Pirro would have been too obvious for the Republicans’ purposes; Turley’s the hack they call when they don’t want to look like they’re calling in a hack.

Elie MystalTwitterElie Mystal is The Nation’s justice correspondent and an Alfred Knobler Fellow at the Type Media Center. His first book is the New York Times best-seller Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy's Guide to the Constitution. He can be followed @ElieNYC.


Latest from the nation